Cowboys-Vikings on Thursday Night Football: Preview, podcast, Twitter, Color Rush
Can the Vikings keep their playoff hopes alive against the Cowboys and their dynamic rookies?
When the schedules came out last spring, this Cowboys-Vikings matchup was intriguing for reasons no one would foresee just a few months later. At the time, the allure was an upstart franchise quarterback vs. the grizzled veteran returning from injury. Teddy Bridgewater , coming off a promising sophomore season, was primed to join the "best young passers" conversation, while Tony Romo , sidelined for all but four games in 2015, would again lead an offense that featured a healthy Dez Bryant and the league's best offensive line.
Only Bryant and the O-line are still part of the Dallas equation.
In late August, Romo fractured a vertebrae during a preseason game, and he was expected to be sidelined 6-10 weeks. Days later, Bridgewater was lost for the season when he tore his ACL during practice.
Both organizations' initial reaction: Panic. That's completely reasonable given that the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings were favorites to make the postseason, but that was working from a very simple premise: Romo and Bridgewater under center. The moment that changed, the respective front offices and coaching staffs had to figure out Plan B beyond career backup Shaun Hill and unproven rookie Dak Prescott .
The Cowboys, fresh off a 4-12 season thanks in large part to Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel , were reportedly interested in trading for Josh McCown . Either way, the Cleveland Browns weren't interested and Dallas was forced to stick with what it had. And, boy, did that turn out well; we might not have otherwise experienced the magic that has been Prescott's rookie season.
But the Vikings weren't content to roll with Hill, who at one time was considered the NFL's best backup quarterback. At 36, there was no guarantee he would last the season (in fact, he had never played in all 16 games at any point during his 14-year career).
So panic led to overreaction, which resulted in the Vikings trading first- and fourth-round picks for Sam Bradford . Yes, we were as shocked as you. But funny story: Turns out, the Vikings didn't overreact; Bradford, acquired a week before the regular season, missed the opener while he learned the offense. And when he took the field in Week 2 -- on national television against the division-rival Green Bay Packers -- expectations were about what you would expect: Bradford would probably look rusty, take a bunch of needless hits, and there was a decent chance he would even get hurt. That was his MO in Philly, and St. Louis before that.
Instead, Bradford looked like he had been in that Vikings offense for years. He finished 22 of 31 for 286 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and Minnesota won 17-14. The Vikings would go on to win three more to get to 5-0, making the people in the front office look like geniuses in the process.
But then reality set in; the Vikings' offensive line was without its two starting tackles, Adrian Peterson was lost in Week 2 to a knee injury and the defense came back to Earth after a hot start. The results: four straight losses, including an inexplicable 20-10 defeat at the hands of the punchless Chicago Bears . The Vikes got back on track in Week 11 against the Arizona Cardinals but lost to the division-leading Detroit Lions last week. At 6-5, Minnesota is currently eighth in the playoff race, two spots out of the final wild-card berth.
Put another way, this Cowboys game is as close to must-win as you're going to get for Minnesota.
Dallas (10-1), meanwhile, lost the opener to the New York Giants and has proceeded to reel off 10 straight victories, including huge wins against the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers and a sweep of the Washington Redskins .
It's slightly more complicated than it seems, though probably not much more. The three-word answer: Prescott and Elliott.
Prescott has not only been a capable replacement for Romo, he has played at such a high level that Romo convened a press conference last month to concede the job. Consider this: In 2013 and 2014, Romo's last two full seasons, he ranked third and 10th in Football Outsiders' value-per-play metric. Prescott is currently No. 2 behind only Tom Brady .
Over those same two years, Pro Football Focus graded Romo as the 13th- and seventh-best quarterback. They rank Prescott No. 7 this season. That's not to say Romo wouldn't be his usually efficient self had he stayed healthy, but it does shine a light on just how amazing Prescott has been in his place.
Skeptics could point out that Prescott has the luxury of sharing the backfield with Elliott, currently the NFL's best running back, according to Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and anyone with just a passing interest in football.
And the hyper-skeptical might also note that both Prescott and Elliott enjoy playing behind the league's best offensive line. We won't argue that, but that's the same offensive line that couldn't save the 2015 team from the backfield of Weeden, Cassel and Darren McFadden . At some point, you have to acknowledge that Prescott and Elliott are a big part of the 180 in Dallas.
In many respects, this team is a lot like the 2004 Steelers in Ben Roethlisberger 's rookie season. He was forced into action in Week 2 when starter Tommy Maddox went down with an injury, and, well, the rest is history. That group finished 15-1, earned home-field advantage in the playoffs, and made it to the AFC Championship game, where they ran into Tom Brady and the New England Patriots just as Big Ben was hitting the rookie wall and running out of gas. The '04 Steelers were built around a good offensive line, a running game and great defense. It made Roethlisberger's life eminently easier.
The '16 Cowboys don't have a dominant defense, but they're arguably better in every other regard. Now the question becomes if they can finish the regular season strong, and if Prescott -- and, to a lesser extent, Elliott -- can avoid the aforementioned rookie wall.
10 minutes you won't get back
Do the Vikings have a chance? We talk about just that with our podcast partner, Will Brinson, on the latest edition of "10 minutes you won't get back:"
Should the Vikings blitz Prescott?
Here's what we know: Prescott is near-flawless when he doesn't face pressure. According to PFF, his passer rating is 121.6 in such situations, but it drops to 79.6 when defenses can get into the backfield. One problem: Blitzing Prescott doesn't necessarily equate to pressuring him. When he's blitzed, his passer rating is a jaw-dropping 120.4 and he's completing 67.2 percent of his throws, including eight touchdowns and nary an interception. These facts haven't been lost on Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who remains one of the league's best defensive minds.
"A lot of times when you're blitzing, you're talking about blitzes, you're trying to win on the back," Zimmer said this week, via ESPN.com. "[Elliott] doesn't get beat very much. There's different ideas of the blitz. Sometimes you want to play man-to-man and you rush five, and sometimes you rush six and play some kind of zone or man or zeroes. You have to be smart with how you rush him, and you have to be disciplined in the rush lanes. They've got a lot of situations where he can get the ball out quickly."
In the Thanksgiving loss to the Lions, the Vikings blitzed Matthew Stafford 47 percent of the snaps but only pressured him 41 percent of the time. Stafford finished with 232 yards on 23-of-40 passing, which is slightly above his completion percentage when under pressure (58 percent vs. 54 percent).
"Hopefully it's an incompletion [on a blitz]," Zimmer continued. "That's really what we're trying to do, is get incompletions, or if we keep them short of the sticks on third down or something like that, I would consider that successful."
Can the Vikings' offense create more big plays?
The unit has sputtered in recent weeks, a truth that hasn't been helped by offensive coordinator Norv Turner's unexpected decision to quit earlier this month. Following the Lions' loss -- Bradford finished 31 of 37, but only threw for 224 yards, which works out to 6.1 yards per attempt -- Bradford is looking to stretch the field.
"I think schematically, that was just kind of how we decided to attack [the Lions]," Bradford said. "But I think after last week, we realized that we've got to be a little more balanced in how we go out there and do that."
Good news: Bradford ranks fourth in PFF's deep-passing stat, completing 57 percent of his attempts with a passer rating of 135.4.
Bad news, via ESPN.com's Ben Goessling: "According to ESPN Stats & Information, only 18.2 percent of opponents' passing attempts have traveled 15 yards or more this season against the Cowboys, which is the 10th-fewest in the league."
"I think every team presents the opportunities to go downfield," Bradford said. "I think you look at Washington and what they were able to do in the game last week. They hit them for quite a few big plays, so I think it's just a matter of getting the right plays dialed up at the right time against the right coverages."
Kirk Cousins was 5 of 9 on passes traveling more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, for 190 yards and a touchdown.
Are Dak and Zeke legit MVP candidates?
Depends on who you ask, but both are in the running. In fact, we wrote about the MVP race and while neither rookie was a unanimous selection in our in-house CBSSports.com poll, they were well represented.
Here's what colleague (and, admittedly, Cowboys fan) Jared Dubin wrote:
In the absence of a truly dominant player, I'm just going with the guy who has been, to date, the best player on what has been, to date, the best team in football. Elliott benefits from that incredible Dallas offensive line, yes, but if you think that's all he is, you're not watching this kid play.
Prescott and Elliott have competition, most notably from Tom Brady and Derek Carr . Brady has 2,201 yards, 18 touchdowns and just one interception in seven games and boasts a 116.7 passer rating. Carr, meanwhile, has 3,115 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions in 11 games to go along with a 100.5 passer rating. And if you're into the whole advanced stats thing, Brady is No. 1 in value per play among passers, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, and Carr is No. 5. At Pro Football Focus, Brady grades out as the league's best quarterback while Carr is third.
Fun fact: The last rookie to win the league MVP award was Jim Brown in 1957.
The last time we met
On Nov. 3, 2013, the Cowboys needed a Romo-to-Dwayne Harris touchdown pass with 35 seconds left to outlast the one-win, Christian Ponder-led Vikings. Romo got that chance at redemption after throwing a late-game interception (ah, the good ol' days).
"I think if you pull back and you really look at Tony Romo's career, people want to talk about some of these plays where things didn't work out," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said at the time. "But if you really look at his body of work and you look at it objectively, he's done this kind of stuff a lot."
The Cowboys improved to 5-4 with the win, but went 3-3 down the stretch to miss the playoffs. The Vikings finished 4-3-1, though Ponder would start just four more games that season.
It's Color Rush Thursday, y'all (again)!
They said it
Here's Jerry Jones talking about Prescott following his Thanksgiving Day stiff-arm of unsuspecting Redskins safety Donte Whitner :
"Well I'll say this, not only are you see [Prescott] gaining when they got that pursuit coming after him, you see him run by a secondary player and then when he puts that stiff-arm [out] you quit worrying about him a little bit. He's the daddy when he does that."
So what did Prescott make of Jones' "daddy" remark?
" I don't know what that means," the 23-year-old said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I have no kids. Don't want any."
This seems like the correct response.
'TNF' on Twitter
Thursday's game will be on Twitter and you'll be able to stream it -- and three subsequent TNF games at tnf.twitter.com.
You can use your mobile device or tablet with the NFL Network app. Kickoff is at 8:25 p.m. ET.
In addition to live streaming, the NFL-Twitter partnership also includes in-game highlights from Thursday Night Football and pregame Periscope broadcasts from players and teams.
Here's the remaining NFL-Twitter TNF schedule:
- Week 13, Dec. 1: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
- Week 14, Dec. 8: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
- Week 15, Dec. 15: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
- Week 16, Dec. 22: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
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